on inspiration and fearlessness

I realize I have been neglecting this blog in a terrible way, and I realized that is largely because I have been feeling like I keep feeling as though I have nothing worthy of writing about. I hate looking at my life/this blog in that way because the truth is it is often tiny ordinary things that make the best subjects for reflection. I didn’t start this blog to pump out polished, publication-worthy pieces of creative non-fiction, I created it in order to provide myself a forum for thinking, reflecting, and as a way for my friends and family to keep up to date on what was going on in my life/in my head. But as a result of being afraid that I have nothing that is valuable or profound enough to write about, I haven’t been writing in here at all. And for that cowardice, I apologize.

I have actually been encountering a lot of things that inspire me lately, things that choke me up, that tease out tears, things that I’m convinced are what keep us going most of the time. As a writer I feel that I especially crave inspiration, whether it’s witnessing inspiring events, meeting inspiring people, or sometimes even just thinking inspiring thoughts–but I think that without inspiration it is nearly impossible to move forward, to grow, to better ourselves and to give all that we have to the world around us.

I was sent an advice column in an online blog by a friend of mine the other day that was so meaningful to me that I actually teared up while reading. It seems to be keeping with the theme of my looming post-graduate future, but when I read the advice of others who have decided to take a path similar to the one I’m looking down, it feels like someone is wrapping my dreams and aspirations in a warm hug and always makes me feel better. (The article can be found here–warning: some profanity). One line in the middle of the column struck me with particular force: Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you on into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Sitting on my bed reading that, I felt like the words had jumped off my computer screen and grabbed me right around the heart, like they had been put there just for me. And I knew immediately that that sensation, that experience is exactly why I want to be a writer in the first place. For the slight, off-hand chance that someone, somewhere, will read something I’ve read and get to feel that way, even if just for a second. That quote immediately got added to the collage of photographs, quotes, and magazine clippings that plaster the wall of my bedroom. I think often words are more physical than we could ever imagine, can interact with us in a more visceral, tangible way than we thought possible. When used in intentional, well-crafted, inspired ways, they can come to life.

We got an email over the creative writing listserv the other day about a new volunteer site for the Northwestern volunteer group NCDC called 826Chicago, which is a non profit founded by the amazing writer Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) that helps kids between the ages of 6-18 with creative/expository writing through workshops, tutoring, and in-school programming. I was immediately drawn to the combination of writing and working with kids, but was hit with hesitation– I’m a senior, and part of me feels like it’s too late to join groups or start extra-curricular activities now. But right after that initial moment of reluctance, I was visited in my thoughts by the voice of Tyler, a friend of mine who died last year who had the most positive, centered outlook on life of anyone I’ve ever met. Too late? You’re twenty-one years old. It’s not too late to do anything. Tyler never would have let the fact that he was a senior stand in the way of him getting involved in something that was compelling and meaningful to him. And so without allowing myself to doubt any farther, I RSVP’ed attending to the info session that was this past Friday. Sitting in the small classroom in the beautifully remodeled Harris building, each second that I listened to the two 826 staff members describe the project I was more and more glad that I had made the decision to come. It was incredibly encouraging to realize that there are other people in the world, and even in the greater Chicago area who think the same things are important that I do. “Real life,” as we refer to it in college, doesn’t just have to be brain-numbing, soul-sucking desk jobs. There are people out there doing wonderful, amazing, generous things to make the world a better place, little by little. Even though it was 6 on a Friday night and I attended in the info session alone, there are few decisions I’ve made this quarter that I’m happier with or prouder of. I can’t wait to start volunteering with 826 as often as I can. Thanks, Ty.

One of the worst things a writer can do is not write, especially out of fear that what they write will not be good enough, will not be perfect. It is far better to write something that sucks than not write anything at all. I will try to update this with more diligence and less fear.

song of myself

When we were little, the choices that lay before us seemed narrow and simple. Peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese? Disney or Nickelodeon? Red shirt or blue shirt? None of these choices had any kind of serious gravity connected to them, mostly being little pivots in one direction or another throughout the course of what were mostly pretty ordinary days. I have been known to often look at eight year olds and muse “Don’t you miss being that age?”

But as we got older, choices became more nuanced, questions became more open, options grew wider. Suddenly choices we made mattered, suddenly they had a basis in some sort of value system, suddenly there wasn’t always a right or wrong answer. Sometimes there was, but it wasn’t the one we wanted. But still, we were presented with a set of options. AP or regular? SAT or ACT? Break the rules or follow the rules? We chose from a list of classes, we chose from a list of colleges, we chose from a list of dorm rooms and we chose from a list of extracurricular activities. Someone fanned a nicely organized list out in front of us, and said “pick a card.” So even though there were now more things to choose from, and the choices mattered more, we were still being guided, being prompted, being, in many ways, limited.

Now, as I hover on the verge of the end of that last major choice, I realize that no one is holding up a fanned out stack of cards. No one is presenting me with a list and asking me to choose. I’m simply staring forward, staring out at the entire world, and hearing some sort of disembodied voice whispering above me “Go.” There’s no map, no directions, no directory. It’s just the world, and everything in it, out there, waiting to be taken. And no one is telling me which way I have to go. Sure, there are some limitations–no one is pretending that I hav the option before me to move to the Middle East and be a financial consultant– but within the realm of reason, the next step can be absolutely anything I want it to be.

For some people this is not as daunting, not as difficult of a question. They’ve set up their own bunch of fanned-out cards, their own list of options. For people who have a very specific, very rigidly structured set of goals, the faint outline of the path ahead is laid out for them, they just have to fill in the blanks. For prospective doctors:ace your premed classes, take the MCAT, go to med school, do your residency, become a doctor. They have sets of fanned out cards waiting for them the next ten steps of the way.

Every piece of advice I’ve ever gotten from successful, published writers as to what a writing major is supposed to do after graduation is the same fairly vague, fairly terrifying thing: go out and experience things so you can write about them later. That is not a fan of cards, that is not a quick list, that is basically any and everything you could possibly do sitting there and waiting for you to choose it. And obviously, it is thrilling and fascinating and freeing–this idea that I could answer telephones in Maine or teach english in Chile or WWOOF around eastern Europe or translate assembly manuals for IKEA furniture in Chicago–but it is also overwhelming. Which way do I go, which passions do I follow? And the most important question that seems to pop up through all of this–how will I have time to do all the things I want to do?

In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” he says “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I love this quote because it addresses the fact that in most of us there live many passions, many possible directions, many dreams and desires. There are so many different things I could see myself being happy doing, so many places I could picture myself living. And yet for the time being, for the immediate future, I must choose one, or I must at least choose the one that will come first.

What used to happen to me when I was living at home when I was cleaning my (very messy) room was that I would get so overwhelmed with the magnitude of the mess that I would end up standing in the middle of my room staring at it, doing nothing, not sure where to start. If only my dresser was messy or only my chair had clothes on it, I could zero in on that area and get things done. But if there was stuff all over my floor, if my closet was in shambles, if you couldn’t see my desk under all of the out-of-place objects on top of it–then nine times out of ten I would be overwhelmed into inaction, into a stunned sort of stand-still. It is a little how I feel now, staring down all of these possibilities.

My only immediate goal right now is to explore as many of these as possible, to look into as many possibilities as I can, so that when the time comes to make the actual choice I will be excited about the openness of the choice I will have to make come June, rather than intimidated by it. Because the wide, open-ended questions like Where Do You Want To Go? And What Do You Want To Do? should be as enjoyable to figure out how to answer as the answers themselves.